Vietnam's civil society continues to push for legalized prostitution

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Hunger puts girls on the streets, where they become "˜criminals' offered no protection by the law, activists say

Sex workers look for customers on a street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Activists and experts say the only way Vietnam will be able to manage the issue and better protect sex workers is by  establishing safe and legal red-light areas. Photo by Nghia Pham 

Thanh, a sex worker in Ho Chi Minh City, says that women in her trade have no protection against beatings and gang-rape, all too common occurrences in the illegal line of work.

"Actually, we have to watch out and run whenever the police come. How could we think about asking for their protection?" she said.

Despite the fact that prostitution figures only seem to grow amid a slew of recent ineffective measures against the business, authorities still reject any suggestion of legalizing it.

But social workers, sociologists, activists and other experts and analysts say that the only way Vietnam will be able to manage the issue and better protect sex workers is by establishing safe and legal red-light areas.

On the fringe

According to a parliamentary resolution which took effect in July of last year, sex workers no longer have to serve compulsory terms at rehabilitation centers.

Prostitution remains illegal and sex workers may be fined VND300,000 (US$14.2) for their first offence and up to VND5 million for repeat offences. According to a 2004 government decree, those found paying for sex may be fined between VND500,000-VND5 million, depending on the circumstances.

In January, HCMC's Anti-Social Evils Agency took things a step further by proposing that the city administration seek approval from the central government to plan areas for "sensitive services."

"Sensitive services" is a common term used for businesses that can be easily abused for prostitution activities like massage parlors, hotels, or karaoke bars.

But the city administration shot down the proposal.

According to the agency, the fight against prostitution has become an almost unwinnable battle and many district officials said their efforts to prevent and fight prostitution have been ineffective.

According to official statistics, there are about 15,000 female sex workers in HCMC. The city has a population of nearly 8 millions.

At a recent conference on prostitution, Dr. Nguyen Thi Hue of the HCMC AIDS Prevention Committee, again floated the idea of planning an area for prostitution.

However, her proposal attracted no discussion from other participants at the event held by the city's social affairs department.

On Monday, a member of the Politburo, the Communist Party's decision-making body, rejected the idea that HCMC should have a red-light quarter somewhere.

"It is impossible to do so because it is against the system's nature and the peoples' moral standards," Le Thanh Hai, chief of the city's Party unit, said at a meeting with constituents in HCMC.

No way out

Nationwide, relevant agencies have reported difficulties in fighting prostitution.

According to the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, during the last three years the police have busted 2,635 prostitution dens, nearly 10,000 sex workers and more than 2,400 sex brokers.

Hanoi, HCMC, and Quang Ninh and Phu Tho provinces had the highest prostitution figures.

In many localities, police said sex workers are not afraid of the fine and just move to other places to work if local police begin to patrol regularly.

Do Thuy An My, a social worker in HCMC who supports sex workers, said it is difficult to make a sex worker quit their work.

"It is very difficult to reduce the number of sex workers. Many women are still working although they are more than 60 years old," she said.

Truong Thi Hong Tam, author of "Tam Si Da" (Tam AIDS) a memoir about her life as a sex worker said almost all sex workers returned to the job after attempting to shift to other jobs.

"They are not educated and have no money to start a business, what can they do? Hunger forces them to the street again," she said.

Criminalizing the victim

Hoang Tu Anh, director of the NGO Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCIHP) said Vietnam has never recognized prostitution but cannot deny its existence.

"The current state attitude toward prostitution is that they are mistaking sex workers as criminals instead of victims. This is very dangerous," she told Vietweek.

She said many sex workers complained about being victimized by abuse and violence but do not know who to ask for help. In the Netherlands, sex workers can call the police if their customers use violence or refuse to follow agreements, she said.

She said Vietnam's moral principle is "loving your neighbor as yourself" and the system's nature is that anyone has the right to pursue happiness and have enough food and clothes.

"But the city's solutions are against these mores and show discrimination; they make prostitution "˜evil' and violate the rights of those supplying the service and using the service."

Better prospects

Anh said the legalization of prostitution would be a basic step toward reducing discrimination and ensuring the rights of the people involved.

"And of course relevant issues like community health and safe sex can be better ensured. National programs, like those to prevent HIV, will be much more easily implemented," she said.

Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who directs the non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Hanoi, said the government should recognize prostitution for better management of the issue.

Stressing the need to set up a specific zone in the city for such services, he said city authorities should still be cautious.

"There should be a thorough study on how and where to set up such area," he said. "I feel like it is a market place. And there have been new markets in Hanoi which have no customers."

Meanwhile, Anh said that once the government allows sex work, many other actions could be taken to protect sex workers.

"There should be propaganda on unbiased information about sex work and prostitution should be distinguished from human trafficking and abuse of women. People should be aware that protecting sex workers also means protecting society's health," she said.

"The government should make sure that sex workers and involved people have an active role in the making of relevant policies."

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